Forget Tigers, The Royal Air Force’s 74 Squadron has a legacy of South African Lions!

One of the most prestigious fighter Squadrons in the history of the Royal Air Force was 74 Squadron, known as the ‘Tigers’.  However, three South Africans played a key role in forging the great fighting legacy of the Tigers, two of them commanded the squadron, one during World War 2 and one took the squadron into the jet age.

So let’s look at these three remarkable South Africans and how they have come to influence not only 74 Squadron, but The Royal Air Force itself.

World War 1

19424342_1982409011988087_4980834163001230819_n74 Squadron was formed during World War 1,Its first operational fighters were S.E. 5as in March 1918, and served in France until February 1919, during this time it gained a fearsome reputation and was credited with 140 enemy planes destroyed and 85 driven down out of control, for 225 victories. No fewer than Seventeen aces had served in the squadron, including one Victoria Cross Winner Major Edward Mannock.  In this line up of aces was one notable South African, and this man came from Kimberley, Capt. Andrew Cameron Kiddie DFC, and he came from unassuming beginnings – he was one of Kimberley’s local bakers.

Captain Kiddie became a flight commander of 74 Squadron in the summer of 1918 and scored fifteen aircraft shot down victories by the end of the war. For this he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and  the Belgian Croix de Guerre.

To read more in-depth about his remarkable South African follow this link to a previous Observation Post story Kimberley baker was a South African WW1 Flying Ace.

World War 2

malan1World War 2 would shape 74 Squadron as one of the best in The Royal Air Force.  It became the front-line squadron which took the brunt of the attacks during The Battle of Britain, and this time the squadron was commanded by a formidable South African, Group Captain A G ‘Sailor’ Malan DSO & Bar DFC & Bar.

Arguably one of the best South African pilots of the Second World War and certainly one of the best Royal Air Force pilots during the Battle of Britain – now one of the much idolised ‘few’ who, along with his command of 74 Squadron, turned the tide of the war, and he did it based on a set of rules he drew up, now famously known as “Ten of my rules for air fighting”.

Sailor Malan’s rules of air combat were readily adopted by pilots in the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain, these rules saved many a pilot and brought down many enemy aircraft, they are directly attributed to the success of the Battle of Britain and in so keeping Britain in the war.

Sailor Malan was given command of 74 Squadron, which by this stage was flying the iconic Spitfire, Sailor, now with the rank of Acting Squadron Leader took command at the height of the Battle of Britain on 8th August 1940. Three days later on August the 11th, the Squadron was in battle, and it was a battle that help turn the tide of the Battle of Britain.  When Sailor finished the day’s combat The Royal Air Force had downed an astounding 38 enemy aircraft.  This day is forever marked now in the history of the Battle of Britain and the squadron history as “Sailor’s August the Eleventh”.

In all, by the end of the war Sailor Malan scored 27 enemy aircraft kills, seven shared destroyed, three probably destroyed and 16 damaged. He was to receive the Distinguished Service Order decoration – not once, but twice and well as the Distinguished Flying Cross decoration, again not once – but twice.


Much has been written on Sailor Malan on this website, so for an in-depth profile on this most exceptional South African please follow this link: Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

The Cold War

But that is not the end of 74 Squadrons remarkable commanding officers, one South African was to take the squadron into the jet age and himself achieve the dizzy heights of Air Vice-Marshal in the Royal Air Force.

21414618_10214639016195019_6362419216829534532_oAir Vice-Marshal John Howe was one of the RAF’s most experienced and capable Cold War fighter pilots, whose flying career spanned Korean war piston-engined aircraft to the supersonic Lightning and Phantom.

Howe was appointed to command the RAF’s No 74 Tiger Squadron in early 1960, the squadron had just been issued one of the fastest fighter aircraft ever built, the EE Lightning and Howe was going to put it through its paces. Once again, we find a South African Lion leading a squadron of Tigers. So how did a South African land up in such a position of Command in the Cold War?


John Howe in the SAAF

John Frederick George Howe was born in East London, South Africa, on March 26 1930 and educated at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown. As soon as he left school, he joined the South African Air Force (SAAF) and trained as a pilot. In early 1951 he joined SAAF No 2 Squadron, known as the Flying Cheetahs. John along with 2 Squadron became part of the South African commitment to United Nations to take part in the Korean War.  Here his prowess as fighter pilot took root.

During his first tour of duty in Korea for the South African Air Force he flew the American made  Mustang F-51D fighter-bombers in front-line action.  One notable action took place on June 24, when Howe took off with three others. They responded to an emergency call for air support by a surrounded ground force. In the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, the four Mustangs attacked gun emplacements a number of times. Howe did not expect to survive, but the four aircraft returned to base. All four South African pilots received US gallantry awards. A month later, Howe was forced to crash-land and was rescued by a helicopter.

In September, as a 21-year-old second lieutenant, he was the leader of four aircraft instructed to attack enemy troops that were threatening friendly forces. Fierce enemy fire damaged Howe’s aircraft but he continued to lead his formation against the target. The US authorities awarded him an immediate DFC, the citation recording:

“He displayed a standard of leadership above and beyond that normally expected.”

After completing his flying tour, Howe remained in Korea on a second tour as a ground based Forward Air Controller for the SAAF, serving with US Infantry and operating in the thick of the fighting. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal from the United States for his service during these actions.

Returning to South Africa after the war, Howe found himself in a changed political landscape.  The National Party had come to power in 1948 with its policies of Apartheid and entrenched hatred of anything British (a legacy given them from the Boer War), by 1954 the political situation in South Africa became more difficult and extreme, especially for senior officers of English origin in the South African defence forces, who were by-passed for Afrikaans officers instead. As was also the case with Dick Lord, John Howe would now find his future in The Royal Air Force (RAF) instead, so in 1954 he decided to resign from the SAAF and moved to England where he transferred to the RAF with the rank of Flying Officer (Service No. 503984) to fly early types of jet fighters.

In April 1956 he joined Royal Air Force No 222 (Natal) Squadron flying the Hunter. When a volunteer was required for forward air controller duties with No 3 Commando Brigade in late 1956, Howe’s experience in Korea helped to land him the job. He sailed with the Brigade for the ill-fated Suez campaign and, at dawn on November 6, landed on the beaches at Port Said with No 40 Commando, to direct aircraft on to targets in the area. In the event, the campaign was short-lived.

Howe returned to his squadron before joining No 43 Squadron as a flight commander, still flying the Hunter. He was awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air, receiving a second two years later. In June 1959 he started training to take command of his Lightning squadron – No. 74.

Based in Norfolk. The aircraft represented a great advance in technology and performance, with a remarkable rate of climb to heights in excess of 60,000 ft and capable of flying at twice the speed of sound.

With no simulator or two-seat training version of the aircraft, Howe made his, and the squadron’s, first flight on June 14 1960. A few weeks later he was instructed to provide a four-aircraft formation for the annual Farnborough Air Show.

Despite the inevitable early teething troubles with the complex aircraft, Howe and his pilots flew on all but one day of the show. The squadron was made the RAF’s official aerobatics team for 1961 and was in demand for appearances at British and European shows. For the Farnborough event that year, Howe trained and led a “diamond nine” formation.

Howe realised that air shows were good for publicity and potential international sales of aircraft, but the time devoted to them hindered the development of full operational capability. He drove himself, and others, hard, but he was a highly respected leader. The squadron’s high morale helped it to reach operational status within the first 10 months despite the many problems that had to be overcome. At the end of his tour, Howe was awarded the AFC.

He said of the Lightning: “It was one of the most exhilarating aeroplanes, even by today’s standards.”


John Howe in a vertical dive flying a RAF EE Lightning

Howe remained in the fighter business, including a tour of duty with the USAF which gave him an opportunity to fly the latest American fighters, including the Phantom. In 1968 he was appointed to command the RAF’s operational conversion unit that saw the introduction of the Phantom into RAF service, his unit being responsible for the conversion of the first squadron crews.

After a staff tour he became the station commander of RAF Gutersloh, the home of two Lightning squadrons and a support helicopter squadron. His fighter squadrons, based a few minutes’ flying time from the border with Warsaw Pact forces, mounted a continuous quick-reaction capability. He rarely missed an opportunity to maintain his fighter pilot proficiency.

After attending the Royal College of Defence Studies he served at HQ 11 (Fighter) Group, and on promotion to air commodore was appointed the commandant of the Royal Observer Corps (ROC). The organisation had a fine record, but Howe justifiably believed that it was in need of modernisation and a more robust attitude. He set about applying the same exacting standards to the ROC that he did to his flying. By the time he left in 1980, the efficiency of the Corps had risen sharply.

In May 1980 he was appointed the air officer commanding the Southern Maritime Region, a departure from his previous fighter experience and where his usual forceful approach was much in evidence.

His final appointment in the RAF was the dual role of Commandant General RAF Regiment and Provost Marshal of the RAF. He retired in November 1985. He was appointed CB (1985) and CBE (1978).

In his younger days, Howe was a high-spirited officer who knew how to enjoy life – his South African roots never left him and his “Zulu war dance” at social functions was a speciality. But on duty he was utterly professional and he set himself and those around him difficult goals.

22046893_10214639202959688_8200957218336099859_nIn retirement he was a sheep farmer in Norfolk, where he was known as the “supersonic shepherd”; he retired in 2004. He was a capable skier and a devoted chairman of the Combined Services Skiing Association. A biography of him, Upward and Onward, by Bob Cossey, was published in 2008. John Howe married Annabelle Gowing in March 1961; she and their three daughters survive him.

Air Vice-Marshal John Howe, was born March 26th 1930, he died 27th January 2016 aged 85. He remains another one of South Africa’s finest military exports, another South African who truly carries the 74 Squadron motto:

I fear no man


For some video footage of Air Vice-Marshal John Howe in action and the equipping of 74 Squadron with Lightnings, have a look at this rare footage:

Researched by Peter Dickens.  Primary reference and extract on Air Vice-Marshal John Rowe taken from his Obituary in The Telegraph and Wikipedia.  Images of Air Vice Marshal Howe thanks to Alan Mark Taylor

One thought on “Forget Tigers, The Royal Air Force’s 74 Squadron has a legacy of South African Lions!

  1. Pingback: Kimberley’s local baker was also a WW1 Flying Ace | The Observation Post

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